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Rohingya Exodus: Refugees Struggle To Get Survival Basics


The United Nations is calling it the world's fastest-growing refugee emergency. More than half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, a Muslim minority chased out of the mostly Buddhist country. They're now in Bangladesh, and that country is having trouble providing even the basics for the new arrivals. Michael Sullivan reports from the Bangladeshi city of Cox's Bazar.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: This is the new Balukhali makeshift camp just a few miles from the border with Myanmar, a camp that's growing bigger every day, the new arrivals setting up whatever makeshift shelter they can, mostly simple huts of bamboo lashed together with a sheet of plastic for a roof. It's a wretched place. There's no real sanitation. I'm looking around me and I'm seeing piles of human feces all around me. There's not much clean water, and there's not much food here either. And there's no roads coming into this settlement, which makes improving things here that much harder. The government says it's working on fixing that. It better hurry, aid workers say, if it wants to avoid a public health disaster.


SULLIVAN: I slog through the fetid water back to one of the paths leading into the camp and come across a team from the Bangladesh NGO BRAC. What are you working on, I asked. Pretty much everything, it turns out, according to team leader Uden Chakba (ph).

UDEN CHAKBA: Sanitation, latrine.

SULLIVAN: Sanitation, latrines.

CHAKBA: Washroom.

SULLIVAN: Washrooms. OK.

And not just in this camp but nearly a dozen more as well, thousands of latrines, tube wells and washrooms urgently needed to help avoid the spread of waterborne disease.

How long will it take to finish? One week? Two weeks? One month? Two months?

CHAKBA: As soon - three months or six months past (unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: It's going to take you three to six months to finish?


SULLIVAN: And then there's the problem of trying to feed half a million tired, hungry people.

It's 10 o'clock in the morning. I'm standing outside one of the informal camps around Kutupalong. There are at least a thousand people standing in line here waiting to get 25 kilograms of rice that's supposed to last them for two weeks. Then they can come back and get more.

This site run by the World Food Programme also gives out high-energy biscuits to the new arrivals, some of whom have spent days trekking here from Myanmar. And more are coming - maybe a lot more.

DAVID BEASLEY: We are scaling up and anticipating another couple hundred thousand.

SULLIVAN: That's WFP executive director and former South Carolina Governor David Beasley. He's been visiting the camps this week.

BEASLEY: I experienced in the last three weeks you may have two to 3,000 a day. And then you may have a spike 'cause we don't know what the Myanmar military is doing on the other side of the river.

SULLIVAN: What the Bangladesh military is doing on this side is registering new arrivals with photo IDs that give them something many never had back in Myanmar - an identity as Rohingya.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: A Bangladesh border guards officer shouts out the names of those whose IDs are ready. Rashid Ula (ph), a rail-thin 35-year-old, shows me his. Under nationality it reads Myanmar Rohingya.

RASHID ULA: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "I'm happy to have an ID that says I'm Rohingya," he says. "In Myanmar they never gave me one."

The government of Myanmar won't even use the word Rohingya, doesn't consider them citizens. The ID isn't the only upside on this side. They may have lost everything, but at least on this side they're safe, says Peter Bouckaert. He's the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.

PETER BOUCKAERT: They've been living inside Burma in constant fear of their lives, of their girls being raped. So I've talked to many people in this camp who say life is tough here, but it's actually better because I can sleep at night. For the first time in many years, I feel secure.

SULLIVAN: A fragile security and one that depends on the continued generosity of their Bangladeshi hosts. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar.


Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.